Dying for Change

Cowtown is “ground zero” in the fight to end bullying of gay teens
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Posted June 6, 2012 by Andrew Mclemore | Photos by Chase Martinez in News

Even when she was 13, Sharon Herrera remembered, she was defending a gay friend who couldn’t defend himself.

He was an easy target, wearing a pink backpack in middle school. When Herrera, who was still coming to terms with her own homosexuality, saw a handful of football players beating on him after school one day, she stepped in to help and got the same treatment. She returned home with blood on her shirt, unsure if it was hers or her friend’s, and complained to her mother.

Nelson: “You and I would not be having this discussion if gay and lesbian kids had not been killing themselves.”

The response was something less than a hand-holding pep talk.

“My mother didn’t hug me, just told me, who did I think I was to be complaining? Jesus was crucified.”

That’s the old mentality, and it’s one that Herrera, who now works in the school district’s office of student engagement, has spent years working to change for the sake of today’s gay and lesbian students.

One way to provide immediate assistance for those students is through the creation of gay-straight alliances (GSAs), groups designed to weave an emotional safety net under kids who, like Caleb, may have no other place to go.

A few Fort Worth campuses, like Southwest High School, have had thriving GSAs for years, but at others, the groups never form at all –– primarily, the gay teachers and staffers said, because of a lack of support from principals and administrators. Gay teachers who have tried and failed to kick-start GSAs on their campuses said they came up against suffocating restrictions.

Any teacher can sponsor a gay-straight alliance but only after a student shows interest. By federal law, public school principals must provide equal access and opportunity to all student groups.

It doesn’t always work out that way, however.

At Monnig Middle School, a teacher approached Principal Jennifer Orona about starting a gay-straight alliance. Orona told the teacher to “focus on her teaching,” according to Vallarino, Herrera, and others.

Orona did not return calls and e-mails seeking comment.

The gay-straight alliance at Western Hills High School was formed three years ago, but its membership has suffered in the last year after campus administrators revoked its ability to make announcements or put up posters on campus.

Frustrated, the few remaining student members sent a letter early this year to Principal James Wellman, Superintendent Walter Dansby, and Fort Worth City Council member Joel Burns.

“We are tired of arguing within ourselves, fighting a losing battle and at the end being ignored by the adults who have power,” the students wrote. 

The letter said the district’s new LGBT policy was “completely meaningless” because officials refused to enforce rules meant to protect gay and lesbian students.

“We are tired of arguing within ourselves, fighting a losing battle and at the end being ignored by the adults who have power,” the students wrote. “For us, it’s obvious that no one does anything because everyone is worried about what religious people would say if anyone dares to truly help out and stand up for the ‘gay kids.’ ”

According to juniors Shelby and Ashley (who did not want their last names used), founding members of the GSA who helped pen the letter, the group was told by Wellman they had to be “school-sanctioned” to use the intercom. But Shelby said other student groups that lack “school-sanctioned” status are still allowed to broadcast announcements about group meetings.

The students never heard back from anyone.

Dansby and Wellman did not return phone calls and e-mails from the Weekly seeking comment.

“It makes us feel like he doesn’t care about us anymore,” Shelby said of Wellman.

Burns told the Weekly he is encouraged by the district’s progress in addressing LGBT bullying. He said he remains hopeful that administrators will provide real assistance but that the Western Hills students’ letter isn’t the only example he’s heard of regarding hesitancy and perhaps hostility among some administrators.

“I’ve heard stories about administrators and counselors getting mixed  signals about acceptance [of LGBT-friendly policies] from other people in district. I still get calls and e-mails like that all the time,” Burns said. “I’ve heard stories from teachers who want to be sponsors of GSAs but the principal pushes back, or they get the sense from other teachers they will be perceived negatively for it.”

Only four of Fort Worth’s 13 high schools have an active gay-straight alliance.

Herrera, along with Vallarino and a handful of other gay teachers, grew tired of seeing Fort Worth principals and administrators resist the creation of gay-straight alliances. So with the help of other openly gay teachers and staff members, they formed LGBTQ SAVES, a group designed as a district-wide gay-straight alliance.

In the fall, they organized a gay prom that brought in about 100 students. In May, they hosted a Saturday afternoon barbecue.

Shelby and Ashley attended, along with about two dozen other students. They ate hot dogs and fell over one another playing Twister. With their own GSA buckling under pressure, the group was a much-needed surrogate.

“It’s a family,” Ashley said. “It’s a safe haven.”

Herrera believes that nothing less than students’ lives are at stake.

She knows from firsthand experience. As a 16-year-old, gay, depressed, and lonely, she considered swigging down a bottle of Drano.

“I got tired of praying for change,” she said.

  ********


17 Comments


  1.  
    Churlish Behaviour

    The things that human beings do to one another in search of approval, inclusion and popularity are absolutely despicable.

    And these selfsame despicable bullies grow up to be disgusting, asinine Texas rednecks. They are everywhere in Fort Worth. There are too many to name, hide from, reconcile with, confront or change.

    The culture of Texas is broken, it is based on hate-filled conservative beliefs that refuse to tolerate anyone who isn’t white, conservative, Christian (or so they claim), privileged, pro-military and pro-gun.

    There is no hope.




  2.  
    betty.brink

    Excellent story Andrew. So glad you are reporting and writing for us. Fort Worth ISD has been lauded nationally for its “progressive” policies re LGBT students and teachers, but policies without training and enforcement are as worthless as the paper they are written on. These students and teachers deserve to have the anti-bullying and anti-discrimination policies that are on the books brought to life. These are our families, our friends, our children. We cannot afford to wait. During the black civil rights movement, the mantra was
    “justice delayed is justice denied.” It is no less true for our LGBT brothers and sisters.




  3.  
    FWISD teacher

    Excellent article! Being a FWISD teacher, I whole-heartedly agree there needs to specific training of ALL district employees on LGBT students and the life-threatening issues they face. I have sat through countless district trainings on all sorts of topics, this one needs to be a priority! How many more suicides or attempted suicides will it take before people recognize the severity of this issue? We need to hold the district accountable for actively enforcing their own policies, just as I am held accountable for teaching state-standards in my classroom!




  4.  
    Teacher

    “The board’s action “made a huge difference,” Vasquez said. “… We have to be given credit for taking some steps to address these issues.” What? What has happened to you Carlos? What are you thinking? You passed a policy but failed to ensure its enforcement. How does that help anyone? The Board continues to ignore those who cry out for help. You vilify and persecute those who come forward with complaints. You have lost touch with those who once looked with hope at the old Carlos Vasquez’s desire for reform. When you decided to run for office, you turned your back on the employees and students who needed you. Where were you when Sylvia Reyna removed Sharon Herrera from her position? When Reyna dismantled the program Herrera fought to build? And why is Reyna now refusing comment? Because the failure of the INOK Program is BY DESIGN. Katherine Everest (who herself allegedly lives in the closet) is completely ineffective and subservient to Reyna’s direction. Why? Because Herrera was effective, beginning to make a HUGE difference, and dared testify truthfully at the Palazzolo hearing (a legal and financial drain on FWISD which continues). Hundreds of students and teachers came to her with complaints. Herrera had to be stopped.
    Your handling of Blanca Salinas has been reprehensible. Where is your stand on the Dunbar Principal? The Dunbar teacher who locked the student in the closet? The student suicide at Heights? FWISD needs you to re-assert your leadership Carlos. You are “out” and can thus be a tremendous force for change – unlike the two Board members who remain hypocrites in the closet.




  5.  
    kvin.bacn

    Why does this have to be about gay students being bullied? If you stop bullying, you stop gay AND straight kids from being bullied. Kids get bullied for their lack of fashion, being poor, dirty hair, funky hair styles, being overweight, too skinny, being a Christian, Muslim, hating Obama, loving Obama, etc. It gets tiresome hearing about gays being bullied as if they are the only one enduring this problem. Just stop bullying altogether.




    •  
      Frustrated

      In our world today, when was the last time you heard on the news of a kid being bullied about wearing dirty clothes, being homeless, being too skinny, etc., attempting or committing suicide? When was one of those kids ever beaten mercilessly and left for dead on a fence? Or robbed, beaten and/or killed because they walked in a specific district of town? You are correct…bullying is bullying and it is an equal opportunity offender! I think we continue to hear about gay teens being bullied and committing suicide, because this is what is being reported. Just recently, before the movie “Bully” came out, we didn’t hear much about two straight pre-teens taking their own lives in OK! The father of a young victim of suicide, Ty Smalley, came to my school to speak to our students about his son’s tragedy. I never knew about his son, and I doubt not too many other people did either, until that moment. A couple of weeks later, I saw the movie and there he was; he had a story and so did his 11 year old son, Ty, who endured bullying for many years, before taking his own life. The hardest thing to hear in person and in the movie is when Mr. Smalley said “My son will always be 11 years old”! The dad is now going around telling others about “Stand for the Silent” a non-profit, organized by other students to fight bullying in our country. You hear about this now, because this man and these students were willing to step up and fight out loud! A senseless death is just that…a senseless death! I agree, If more people would report bullying; whether it is LGBTQ or straight, black or white, young or adult…anything…something just might be done to stop this insidious act of injustice and diabolical behavior. WE NEED MORE TRAINING IN OUR SCHOOLS!




  6.  
    truth

    Herrera helped me when I was suicidal. Thank God she is openly gay, otherwise I would not be here today. Many of our students look up to her because she is openly gay and understands this generation better than any board member or upper management employee. She truly serves our children, gay or straight, brown or black, poor or rich…she gets it. She served countless employees as well, degree or no degree, she is for the people- ALL PEOPLE! Just read her email quote- SHE WALKS HER TALK! She puts her job on the line to save others. She helped my daughter overcome the abuse by her FWISD teacher and a good teacher friend of mine that was being abused by her coworker just three months ago.




  7.  
    Marlin

    Well here we are still at it. The politicians are caving, children are dying, and we are not serving children. I am a gay teacher in an adjoining district that actually serves Fort Worth students. I have found and been active on this issue for over two years. When I was bullied and harrassed, NOTHING was done. When I asked my principal to stop bullying of a student, NOTHING was done. Texas schools DO NOT CARE if our children suffer. They are afraid of the First Baptist Church, and the local Catholc dioces. Let children suffer as long as we don’t have to step up and be called queer lovers.

    Thankfully we have a few brave souls that have out their jobs and lives at risk to protect these people. Sadly it isn’t the school board or the adminstration.




  8.  
    Marlin

    Well here we are still at it. The politicians are caving, children are dying, and we are not serving children. I am a gay teacher in an adjoining district that actually serves Fort Worth students. I have found and been active on this issue for over two years. When I was bullied and harrassed, NOTHING was done. When I asked my principal to stop bullying of a student, NOTHING was done. Texas schools DO NOT CARE if our children suffer. They are afraid of the First Baptist Church, and the local Catholc dioces. Let children suffer as long as we don’t have to step up and be called qu**r lovers.

    Thankfully we have a few brave souls that have out their jobs and lives at risk to protect these people. Sadly it isn’t the school board or the adminstration.




  9.  
    Frustrated

    Yes, here we are again! How many more stories of fallen students committing suicide, before something is seriously done to change this idiotic ass-backwards mentality at FWISD or even our country! I continue to find it disheartening that it appears we move three steps back, instead of foward! FWISD has always put words on paper to make the real issues seem like they are being addressed. But what they always fail to do is follow through when shit really hits the fan! Sure, come up with a fancy little glossy manual for INOK, along with the fancy little sayings by poets. I call it nothing but a little fancy piece of crap! And Katherin Everest is the creator of said crap! Wake up Dansby! If you continue to run your district in this manner, it won’t be long before we also see your name plastered on the news with the caption “Fired as Superintendent”! I laughed when I heard on Channel 5 that Arlington ISD was considered the “meanest district in FTW”! Really FTW??? Of course, our wonderful biased media would never say anything like that about FWISD, b/c they all protect the district…always have and always will! In my opinion, FWISD is by far the meanest…filled with bullies from the top down, who are self-deceptive…who believe that FWISD doesn’t have any issues of bullying, much less bullying of LGBTQ!

    So I ask the question. What is it really going to take to wake up this district to address the issues that plague our students and even our employees? Is this going to be like the city does, when they decide that too many fatalities on an intersection finally deserves a freaking stop light? Are we going to need a certain number of student deaths due to bullying, before this district decides to really do something about it and not just keep wasting money on bogus anti-bullying initiatives? Pee or get off the pot FWISD…people are going to die, if not already, if you continue to drag your feet! WE ARE NOT GOING AWAY!!! As long as we have the breath still in us…the fight for justice will remain, and our noses can still smell your rot from a mile away!




  10.  
    Teacher

    People have to understand that LGBT bulling has an element that is overseen that no other kind of bullying issue has. — A student who is bullied because he is or may appear LGBT will think VERY, VERY , VERY hard before approaching an adult with a complain, they know that they are going to get bible verses thrown at them, be ignored, or their parents be called before anything worthwhile for them is done. Any other king of bullying the student knows that they can go to any adult and the matter most likely will be taken care promptly and without any major issue or religious lecture. But A LOT individuals , uncluding administrators still don’t get it, adults in schools need to be educated about LGBT students so LGBT students can approach any adult with with their concerns as they can with any other bullying issue without hesitation. LGTQ bullying will be be considered to be at same level as any other kind of bullying ONLY when this is done and is properly implemented . Also, the LGBT community purchased the GLSEN “safe space kids” and were delivered to Ft. Worth ISD several months ago with the promisse that they were going to be disstributed… Either FT. Weekly got it wrong or someone is not telling the truth!!!




    •  
      Purveyor of truth

      FWWeekly didn’t get it wrong…FWISD and Kathryn E are liars! The packets were purchased and ready for distribution, but they made it seem like they hadn’t and that is all they were waiting on to implement them. It’s another way for them to control what happens and when it happens. It’s all smoke and mirrors!




  11.  
    Insider

    We cannot expect individuals on the Board and in Administration to be responsible enough to safeguard children and staff when they themselves fear personal discovery. Pass all the policies you want – it is a smoke screen. FWISD needs this program back under someone who is out and unaffraid – namely Sharon Herrera. The biggest problem is the Board who are nothing but a bunch of self-serving politicians whose biggest concern is getting a school named after them. They should be encouraging students and staff to come forward instead of trying to constantly cover-up and punish those who do. How else do these injustices continue? This is not the first scandal directly tied back to Sylvia Reyna and Katherine Everest. Dansby needs a Board he can work with. They all need to resign.




  12.  
    Teacher

    Dansby always blaming the Board (or someone else) for his inability or unwillingness to make sound decisions is getting old. It may have been Reyna (how is she still here?) who removed Sharon, but Dansby said he would reinstate her and then failed to do so. Most of us work in fear.




  13.  
    Questioning

    Why is this always end up being about Sharon Herrera? She is not all that you all think she is. Talk about self-serving. I don’t doubt her heart is inthe right place, but she likes the power and that is the only reason she liked her old position, so she can have the power to cross whoever she wanted and step on others on her way. DAnsby is never going to reinstate her in her old position. she has burned too many people, in cluding Dansby. She pretending she is working hard in student engagement becuase that is the only positiion this district will let her have, instead of firing her! She may have helped some people when she was in her previous position, but don’t be fooled, she did it to bring bigger people down to make herself look like a hero, which she is far from being. I for one am glad she is where she is where she doesnt have anymore power to screw with people. hopefully she will get tired soon and and leave the district or better, get fired or demoted again! If people only knew the real you Sharon herrera they woudn’t be singing your praises.




    •  
      Frustrated

      wow “Questioning” or should I say “Kathryn E”…your grammar is bad! You need to stick to counseling!




  14.  
    Answering

    It never ceases to amaze me – the lengths to which the power elite in FWISD will go to trash a person in order to preserve their own twisted house of cards. This is truly one ISD which should be dismantled from Board to Directors. This comment from “Questioning” was obviously from someone threatened by Herrera’s effectiveness – Reyna, Everest, or even more unethical – Kaufman or Barbara Griffin. Dansby would do well to look closely at those surrounding and advising him. Chapa is a direct conduit of information to Reyna and MJ. As Superintendent, Dansby will never be effective until he brings in his own people. Take another lesson from the new Super in DISD.





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